IPMA International Project Management Association
1 June 2016 / 7:26

Humble Consulting – sustainable results through a different approach

In the early years of my career I thought that if I wanted to be a consultant, I needed to be a real subject matter expert with lots of expertise available to resolve challenging client´s needs. Later I (luckily) realized that I would never ever have enough expertise to help clients, because their situations are so specific, complex and changing. Furthermore, I learned through experience that most of the time the solution is already in the (client´s) system. People feel the problems, they intuitively see the solutions but don´t dare to go for them, don´t know how to address them to the organisation´s top management or don´t know how to perform the respective change process. In 2009, I attended an intensive learning programme for Project Management Consultants organised by GPM, the German Project Management Association. It was designed on principles of social systems theory and showed me new approaches to consulting people and organisations. Later I performed more research about the fundamentals of this approach, looking closer into disciplines such as Cybernetics Social Systems Theory based on Niklas LuhmannSociology of Culture, Organisational Psychology as well as Communication Theory building on famous proponents like Paul Watzlawick and Friedemann Schulz von Thun.

IMG_4717What are my lessons learned based on the research and the practical experiences: 1. The actors of the system (organisation) know best about their challenges and potential solutions. 2. The consultant may support the organisation through asking the right questions, facilitating communication and guiding the people involved through the process of change. From time to time the consultant may also provide specific expertise to the organisation, but only if the organisation specifically asks for it. 3. The chance to reach a sustainable change is much higher if all people of the organisation are engaged in the change, irrespective of their hierarchical status. Changing an organisation requires to engage all stakeholders and help them to self-organise the change towards the self-set ambitions. 4. Understanding culture, communication and collaboration and making professionally use of them is key to success in consulting an organisation. You may understand and design strategy, structures and processes of an organisation, but without the three “Cs” the people will not transform. 5. All this is highly applicable to increase the organisational competence in managing projects as described in the IPMA Organisational Competence Baseline (IPMA OCB®). Thus, the Project Management Consultants needs to draw from the above mentioned concepts in order to be successful.

A few weeks ago I got acquainted with a new book authored by Edgar H. Schein. It is called “Humble Consulting – How to provide real help faster”. It mainly builds on the paradigms mentioned above. Schein highlights the differences of Humble Consulting as follows:

  • It requires a new kind of personal relationship with the client (which is a Level Two relationship building on trust and personalisation))
  • It requires a new kind of behaviour in the very first contact (such as a helping stance, personalising the conversation and avoiding to deliver a “quick” solution)
  • It requires a new attitude of humility, a commitment to helping, and curiosity (see also his book “Humble inquiry”)
  • It requires new listening and responding skills (e.g. asking the right questions, listening actively and building on empathy)
  • It is a new and different personal role for the consultant (not to help in the role of an expert while keeping professional distance, but to become a partner and helper for finding solutions)  
  • It encourages a wider range of consultant behavior based on the consultant being open, authentic and innovative in the relationship
  • It will be most effective if the new conversations become dialogues (Schein means real dialogues, where the consultant enables the interactive exchange of people involved)

Today we will start a 3-Day-training on Project Management Consulting in Helsinki, Finland. We will discuss the implications of the consulting approach, have a look at the IPMA Competence Baseline for Consultants (ICBC) as basis for the IPMA Certification of Consultants and apply all this in a real case.


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Author of this post

Dr. Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 35 years in the field of project-related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Automotive, Engineering, and Consultancy, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH, a leading PM Consultancy in Munich/Germany, he supports executives of industrial clients in transforming their companies towards a project-oriented, adaptive and sustainably successful organization. He has published more than 40 books as well as several hundred articles and blog posts in the field of project management. In more than 20 years of voluntary engagement he served the German Project Management Association (GPM) as well as the IPMA in various roles and was granted for his international commitment with the Honorary Fellowship of IPMA and several of its member associations. He received his doctorate in the field of projectification of society and continues to be active in it through his research and lectures.